“I grew up Catholic, but now…I don’t really know what I am.” This is the phrase I’ve tweaked into perfection over the past few years as I’ve worked to come to terms with my uncertain religious identity.
The thing is, there are three parts to Catholicism – for me, anyways – and I don’t feel like I connect with all of them. 1) The capital-C Church, which was created and is maintained by men, is strict in its traditional beliefs, and has a not-so-squeaky-clean past (and present); 2) the brick-and-mortar church I attend at home, where I’ve grown up, been baptized, sung in the choir, interned, and found a community of loving individuals who’ve known me for many years; and 3) my personal faith and spirituality, which I see as my relationship with God and the world, and my own actions to try to be a good person. It’s the last two parts that I identify with in my religion, and the first is the part that makes it hard for me to stay.
Once I was old enough to drive myself, I stopped going to church with my family and I haven’t been back regularly since. I’ll go for holidays or check out a church of another Christian denomination from time to time, but ever since I started becoming aware of my own core beliefs and values, I haven’t felt comfortable or like I belong in church, where I know the teachings and the beliefs of so many around me do not align with mine, and in fact see me and some of my beliefs and identities as sinful. So, for right now my religious affiliation is something like the “N/A” or “Other” option on a drop-down menu.
This is the mindset I was in when I landed in Spain, where almost 70% of people self-identify as Catholic, according to World Atlas. This is a country where at least half of the top attractions in each city are Catholic churches and/or cathedrals, where I have found that in every souvenir shop and even drugstore you can find statues of patron saints and Nativity scenes, and where all the stores are closed on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath.
I have been faced with a choice everywhere I go in Spain: embrace Catholicism, ignore it, or reject it. One of my goals here is to stay open-minded and lean into new experiences, so I’ve decided to embrace my Catholic roots. Besides admiring beautiful depictions of Catholic stories and figures through art and architecture in cathedrals and museums like every other tourist (regardless of their religious background), I also tried attending a Mass – not for a holiday, just a regular Sunday service.
The church I visited was the most beautiful I’d ever seen, adorned with sculptures and lights and so many colors. I didn’t understand much of the Spanish spoken in the echoey nave of the church, but I understood the sentiment behind the words because I know what’s said at Masses in English. I found myself getting very emotional. Here I was, so conflicted about my own feelings towards the Church, and then to suddenly experience the magic of sharing in something that crosses geographical, linguistic, and cultural borders… I was overwhelmed.
That’s when I realized I had overlooked a fourth facet of Catholicism: religious practices, which are the words spoken in prayer, the beauty of a place of worship, the figures (saints, the Holy Family, etc.) that are referenced, and the stories of the Bible. I don’t know if I believe in all of these things exactly, at least not the same way I used to, but being in Spain and seeing how they bring people together has made me remember how much I respect them.
I don’t know if I’ll feel “more Catholic” or come back to the Church after this semester is over, but after crossing a sea to find a community of people I automatically share something with – whether or not I am completely sure I belong there – I feel more comfortable now accepting where I am at in my faith journey
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